No matter how hard Bret Hart worked and improved and connected with the fans throughout 1993, it never seemed to be quite enough for Vince McMahon. Hart was about as home-grown as it got back in those days, having become a well-known star under the auspices of the WWF banner. After working his way up through the tag team and Intercontinental ranks, Hart finally seemed poised to break out and cash in on the promise many fans knew he had. With the steroid trials looming and the big, hairy monsters (TM Brian Cashman) finding their way to the door or fading into the background, McMahon was forced into mixing up his business style and roster. It would be the first true test to develop a new star with a different look for McMahon, who had always had Hulk Hogan to fall back on when needed. Hogan had left for an early retirement in April 1992, slipping into the background to deflate his body and deflect some heat from the ever-growing pressure of the steroid scandals. There was still some fan favorite star power hanging around, but it mostly laid with stars also associated with the gas like Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior, or with noted headcases like Sid Justice, a man positioned as the “Next Hulk Hogan” but he bolted on the heels of his predecessor. McMahon would ride the Savage train throughout the summer but knew he would need something new in place come the end of the year. It was then that he looked to a most unlikely place.
It was pretty fortuitous for Bret Hart that SummerSlam 1992 emanated from London, England. Not just because the Hitman was always super popular overseas, but also because he happened to hold the Intercontinental Title, a belt that McMahon wanted to move to Davey Boy Smith in his home country on a PPV stage. That meant Hart would get a chance to main event a major PPV and deliver the fantastic match that he and Smith used to work in their sleep back in the late 80s. Basically, it was a chance to Hart to prove he was a top guy. And he delivered. He carried a gassed up, pill addled, blown up British Bulldog to a near perfect match in front of a rabid crowd. Hart may have lost that match, but he proved he was a star in the process. Two months later at a house show in Saskatoon, Hart was given the chance of a lifetime when McMahon decided to have him go over WWF Champion Ric Flair to win the title. I could barely believe what I heard when I flipped on SuperStars that weekend. Bret Hart? World Champion? What the hell?!
Hart would be pushed as a true fighting champion, battling all comers (Virgil!) throughout the winter. By the early spring. it was clear that Hart’s out of the ring confidence had risen to the level he had inside the squared circle. His promos were stronger, he carried himself differently and he was presented as the face of the company, a star fans could be proud of. He ducked nobody, worked hard and always found a way to win. However, with WrestleMania looming, it was clear McMahon was becoming restless. Like a boyfriend that found a great, down to earth girl after being dumped by his popular high school love, Vince couldn’t seem to shake the ghosts of the past and finally move on. So, as a result, on February 22, 1993, Hulk Hogan made his return to the company with a very hyped interview on Monday Night Raw.
Things didn’t seem so bad at first. While Hart was slated to defend his WWF Title against rookie monster Yokozuna in the main event at Mania, Hogan would be teaming with BFF4L Brutus Beefcake to battle the WWF Tag Team Champions, Money, Inc. In fact, this move seemed a smart way to bolster the midcard. Have Hogan work underneath and add some credibility to the tag division while Hart and the new blood carried the top of the card. It turned out that plan was a mirage. By the time WrestleMania IX wrapped up, Hart had not only dropped his title to Yoko in a surprisingly fun match but Hogan came out to check on him after the match and somehow ended up as Champion when the show faded to black. In the blink of a salt-drenched eye, Hart was now bumped down the ladder of relevancy. Not only was he no longer Champion, but he wasn’t even the new number one contender, a mantle held by the last former champion, Yokozuna. To make matters worse, Hogan took the title and went AWOL, basically vanishing from TV until the summer. Mr. Fuji and Yokozuna would carry the feud on the WWF network of shows and the rematch was set for the first ever King of the Ring PPV in July. Out of the title picture, Hart was given the number one seed in the tournament and positioned as an early favorite to win the crown.
On that balmy June night in Dayton, Hart indeed would become King, running through a gauntlet of impressive wins, knocking off Razor Ramon, Mr. Perfect and Bam Bam Bigelow en route the victory. All told, Hart wrestled around 46 hard-hitting minutes and was once again clearly the star of the night. While the Hitman was putting on a clinic, Hogan and Yoko lumbered through a mediocre 13 minute title match that ended with a fireball and a leg drop that buried Hulk-A-Mania for good. With Hogan officially out of the picture again, many assumed McMahon would return to Hart and give him the rematch he richly deserved. Once again, Vince was restless and looked elsewhere. On July 4th, a heel in “The Narcissist” Lex Luger marched off a helicopter and onto the deck of the USS Intrepid, where he unexpectedly answered Mr. Fuji’s bodyslam challenge. Moments later, with an American flag polo shirt on, Luger slammed Yokozuna and became the de facto number one babyface in the company. McMahon had finally found his “New Hulk Hogan”, another ripped, wholesome, fan friendly bodybuilder that would ride a wave of Americana and a tour bus to millions of dollars. As Luger ascended the babyface throne, the new King of the Ring was relegated to an entertaining, yet meaningless, feud with an old King, Jerry Lawler.
Things remained pretty status quo for the Hitman until November. As Luger tried and failed to win the World Title, Lex was still positioned as the top dog, leaving Hart to his feud with Lawler, a feud that had become very personal when Lawler started dragging the well renowned Hart Family into the mix. At the 1993 Survivor Series, Yokozuna was transitioned into a feud with Undertaker while the Hart Family war continued. With Lawler suspended due to legal issues, Shawn Michaels stepped into the King’s spot to lead a group of masked knights against a cadre of Hart brothers. With Michaels in for Lawler, the match was pointless on the surface, but during the bout a minor plot point that seemed somewhat innocuous would end up being the launching point of the feud that turned Bret’s WWF career back around. At the 27 minute mark of the bout, Owen Hart was whipped into the ropes, where he banged into his recuperating brother Bret. The force of the collision led to Owen’s elimination and a whole bucketful of jealousy came brimming to the top. Owen was embarrassed that he was the only brother eliminated and angry that Bret was the reason for it and wanted no part of the family celebration after the bout. Tensions would simmer for weeks until the brothers reconciled over Christmas.
As 1994 dawned and the Royal Rumble drew near, Yokozuna still reigned as champion and was lined up to battle the Undertaker in a casket match on the PPV. On the undercard, Bret and Owen Hart decided to team up and aim for tag team gold, challenging the Quebecers for their straps. During the match, Bret injured his knee, which the champs targeted and brutalized. Once Bret saw some daylight, he stuck it out in the ring instead of tagging out to Owen. Moments later, Bret collapsed and the referee called the match off due to injury. A fuming Owen snapped, kicked Bret in his knee and stormed to the back before cutting a legendary promo, calling his brother selfish and bragging about what he did. With his knee severely damaged, it seemed as if there were no chance Bret would appear in the Rumble match as scheduled. As the field dwindled and the match wore on, the Providence fans, always Hitman loyalists, grew weary and nervous that their favorite was cooked. And then, the buzzer blew and at #27, the Hitman emerged, hobbling down to the ring, gutting it out as always. The match would fittingly come down to Hart and Luger, one man looking to regain his spot and the other looking to vindicate his boss’s choice from six months earlier. As the two jostled near the ropes, they both tumbled to the floor and struck the ground simultaneously, ending the match without a clear winner. As a way to test the crowd, referees alternated declaring each man the winner, with Luger garnering boos and Hart picking up enormous support. President Jack Tunney would declare both men as winners and the show ended without any sort of clear WrestleMania picture.
That clarity would come on Monday Night Raw, when Tunney declared that both men would face Yokozuna in separate matches at Mania. A coin toss was held and won by Luger, meaning he would earn the first title match with Hart facing the winner at the end of the night. Luger celebrated like he won something, but in reality he was in the worse position, having to win the title and then still defend it later on. Hart would have to face his brother Owen earlier in the night, but in the grand scheme of title aspirations, the match was nothing but a speed bump. Or, at least it seemed that way. To this point in his career, Owen had not been presented as a legitimate player or contender on the level of Bret, so the outcome seemed elementary: Bret would put away his brother and then advance on to battle Lex Luger to finally determine who was THE MAN in the WWF.
The build up to Mania was fairly ambiguous, but conventional WWF wisdom shouted that Luger would finally complete his quest and leave Madison Square Garden with the title around his waist, taking out the current Champion and the man who had never truly received that rematch that he deserved. Luger vanquishing Yoko and Hart would cement him as the man and finally give McMahon the New Hogan he had so desired. Heck, as the legend goes, Luger even told a New York newspaper writer that he would be champion by night’s end.
Bret’s tilt with Owen opened the show and the two brothers delivered an all-time classic with a shocking finish: Owen pinned Bret clean in the middle of the ring. It was a major win for Owen and a very big warning sign that this evening may be going in a different direction than many fans assumed it was. Would Bret really lose twice? And what good would it do Luger to beat a guy that already lost once on the night? The cloudy picture became much more clear mid-way through the show when Luger blew his title match, losing by disqualification when he put his hands on guest referee Mr. Perfect. With a WrestleMania IX rematch now on deck for the main event, it was fairly obvious where things were headed. And it was a bit of a shock. Was McMahon actually acknowledging that Bret Hart was the horse the company should have been strapped to all along? By going this route, he had to realize he was burying Luger for good. With Undertaker on hiatus, Hart would be THE MAN at the top of the company, no questions asked. It was a complete 180 degrees from where things were six months ago.
Over an hour later, it was official. Bret knocked off Yokozuna and guest referee Roddy Piper handed him the WWF Championship that he had coveted since it was torn from his waist a year earlier. And in as much of a public apology or acknowledgment of a mistake from Vince McMahon that you may ever see, the locker room emptied out and celebrated the new WWF Champion in a way that had never been done before. Surrounded by his peers, the announcers (including Vince himself) and the celebrities in attendance, Bret was raised up high in the air and honored as the top dog of the WWF. MSG was rocking and everything was right once again. Apology accepted.
So, here we sit, twenty years later (!) and the WWE and Vince McMahon find themselves in a very similar position. Heading into WrestleMania XXX, the man who the company tried to ignore turned out to be exactly what it was looking for all along. The path may have been slightly different, but heading into WrestleMania, the final act is the same: the overwhelming fan favorite must wrestle two matches to ascend to the top of the promotion. The jacked-up would-be face of the company won’t get the gold many assumed he would be wearing on the morning of April 7. The long-time heel champion will finally fall and the smaller, dedicated lifer will finally be given the ball. Bret Hart’s title reign lasted nine months but as a result of this title run, he was a made man once and for all. Will Daniel Bryan experience the same outcome? Time will tell. But in the world of wrestling, it has been proven true time and time again: the more things change, the more things stay the same. Will Vince McMahon once again apologize to the fans by giving their hero the moment in the sun? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.